Though it was live for a few hours this weekend, I missed the opportunity to try it out as they took it down after I checked my blogs. MSN Virtual Earth finally went officially live (Beta) this morning and I have to say that it is impressive.

Things I like:

  • Using wheel-mouse for zoom. It just feels intuitive.
  • Being able to zoom about 2-3 levels deeper than Google Maps (maybe not entirely useful in many scenarios, but just damn cool).
  • Satellite overvhead has labels so you can actually see streets, villages, etc. Looks like Google also has this (they call it "Hybrid" mode) but I never noticed it until this morning.
  • It works in Firefox and Opera (no wheel-mouse in Opera). Looks like the Virtual Earth team tested on more than just Internet Explorer.
  • Intelligent search options like Google Maps. Searches are context sensitive to where you are currently viewing. I had a map of the Chicago area, I searched for "Gas Station, Arlington Heights" and both Google Maps and MSN Virtual Earth found ten gas stations in Arlington Heights, Illinois.
  • Multiple searches. I then tried "hotel, arlington heights" and Virtual Earth put the markers for hotels overlayed on top of the gas station markers. You can pull up (focus?) each search by clicking on little bars/icons that represent the search. You can close searches by clicking the 'x' on the corresponding search bar/icon. Looks like you can have three searches active at once (represented by green, purple and red. Very nice! This is a very nifty feature that Google Maps is without.
  • Searches are zoom sensitive. Zooming causes search results to be refined. I was zoomed into a portion of the map, I typed in "mechanic" and two results were shown. I zoomed out one click and 4 more mechanics were added to the list. Google Maps does not have this feature.
  • Scratch Pad is a nice feature, basically add locations/addresses/notes to a "scratch pad" that is persistent.

Things I don't like:

  • While the real-time zooming looks impressive at first, it's just scaling a static image and then re-loading the new map on top (which causes the map to blank and then re-load on both IE and Fx). I find it distracting. If the new zoomed map could be loaded on top without blanking the quickly-scaled version it would look good.
  • Searches are still not intelligent enough (a fault of both Google and MSN). I tried "Thai Food" - no results, I tried "Thai Cuisine" - no results, finally I tried "Thai restaurant" and got a couple hits. I guess this comes down to the search engine quality and this will only get better.
  • Driving directions are NOT integrated. This is probably MSN VE's biggest fault. When you search for a location you get a little Google Maps-like popup that allows you to click "Drive To" or "Drive From". When you click one of these links you get a separate browser window that brings up (Microsoft's old "MapBlast" service that they bought). This was unbelievable to me. Driving direction should be integrated into VE itself.

I think MSN Virtual Earth is a definite contender in the online map engines "war". It's just a shame that it took Google to shake things up out there to see some innovation. Prior to that, Microsoft was happy just to buy MapBlast and let it stagnate. They forgot that innovative applications like Google Maps and GMail are what makes people keep a company's name in their minds, and that's very important (especially to advertising revenue). Hopefully Microsoft is learning this lesson. I'm looking forward to Microsoft's move in the webmail space too because Hotmail is woefully outdated.

§129 · July 25, 2005 · Software, Technology, Web · · [Print]

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